Fact or myth: static stretching is essential for runners. The notion of static stretching is ingrained for many runners; however, research and practice indicate that static stretching may not be as beneficial as we once believed – and could even be detrimental for runners in some circumstances.
Static stretching lengthens the muscle to the point of tension and then holds, without any movement, for 15 seconds or more. Static stretches often isolate a single muscle group. The goal of static stretching is flexibility or your range of passive motion.
Dynamic stretching seeks to improve mobility and involves moving through your range of motion, often in a manner specific to the sport. Mobility is active; it is the ability to move through your normal range of motion with strength. Dynamic stretching is generally beneficial for endurance athletes.
For this entire article, the focus is on static stretching and flexibility. Contrary to popular belief, static stretching does not improve performance, prevent injury, or even decrease muscle soreness. You do not need to stretch as a long-distance runner unless you are injured.
Static Stretching and Running Performance
Stretching should support your performance as a runner, meaning the primary goal is mobility, not flexibility. Static stretching becomes complicated for runners because of its effects on flexibility. Flexibility is not necessarily beneficial for runners. Think of a rubber band: you want a rubber band that can easily snap back to its original shape, rather than one that becomes stretched beyond the point of use.
Muscles require a certain amount of elastic storage for energy return. This tension in your muscles acts as a spring. Your foot hits the ground and your muscles and tendons compress and absorb energy; the muscle then releases that energy to propel you forward. TIn simple terms, a stiffer spring means more energy return, which means you are a more efficient runner.
Stretching for flexibility achieves a different goal. Static stretching decreases tension and stiffness, especially when you hold the stretch for more than 15 seconds. When you stretch before a run, you essentially remove desired tension from that muscle. Decreased muscle tension equates to a poorer economy, both in theory and in practice. Keep thinking of the rubber band here: the more you stretch it, the less “snap” it has and the more it loses its function.
A session of static stretching acutely impairs muscle strength and power. However, the issue is not just stretching before a run (which you should avoid) – it is also static stretching in general. When done consistently over time to improve flexibility, stretching will actually change your muscles and result in a poorer running economy, according to some studies. A 2009 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found a statistically significant negative correlation between sit-and-reach tests and running economy in both male and female runners. The more flexible the runner, the lower their running economy.
The Effect of Static Stretching on Injury Prevention and Muscle Soreness
While stretching has an appropriate role in the treatment of injury, static stretching may not prevent injury as we once believed. A 2010 review published in Scandanavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports concluded that static stretching had no to low effect on preventing injuries. It is worth noting that injuries often occur due to numerous factors, thus making it difficult to isolate the exact role of stretching on injury prevention.
In fact, many argue that being too flexible increases a runner’s risk of injury. This comes back to the rubber band model. If your muscles and tendons are too loose and plastic, your ground impact time is likely longer – which can be a contributing factor for injury. Hypermobile runners should be cautious about static stretching. Their flexibility could lead them to stretch too deeply, which can cause tears in the muscle.
While stretching may feel good to some, no research indicates a clinically significant reduction in muscle soreness from static stretching. A 2011 review published in British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that stretching does not reduce muscle soreness – whether it is performed before or after exercise.
Is Stretching Really That Bad?
Now, it’s worth noting that there are outliers here, as there are with almost everything in exercise science. Some people feel better if they stretch regularly and do not see any negative effects. Even research demonstrates this; a 2011 randomized controlled trial published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that well-trained female runners did not experience a dip in endurance performance even when they stretched after their runs. So while stretching before a run is definitely not recommended, stretching after a run may not be as detrimental.
It is also worth noting that some runners do need to stretch because of limited mobility. If you do not have a proper range of motion through your shoulders, for example, then you may choose to incorporate some chest stretches into your routine. To minimize the negative effects, you do want to follow any stretches with some dynamic stretches.
In conclusion? You do not have to stretch as a long-distance runner. If you are not doing it or often skip it, you are fine – do not start a static stretching routine. Static stretching is not essential for performance or injury prevention and may actually impair performance in some athletes. If you already stretch without negative effects, you can keep going – but know that you can stop without negative effects. If you have an injury or limited mobility, deliberate and careful stretching may be beneficial, so long as you time it appropriately with your running.
To combat muscle tightness, you want to foam roll, strength train, and perform dynamic stretches. Strength training is particularly effective for runners, as it improves your range of motion while also increasing your muscle elasticity.
If you do stretch:
- Do not stretch before a run!
- Limit time spent in each stretch after a running (ideally 30 seconds or less, unless indicated by PT)
- Do not extend stretches beyond the end of your range of motion
- Foam rolling can loosen tight muscles without the negative effects of stretching
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Do you static stretch before or after runs?
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